A Chilean interlude

October 31st, 2013

Joined by our friend Anna – who we have repeatedly bumped into over the last year but had never quite managed to cycle with so far – we set off together from La Paz. The aim was to leave Bolivia briefly and enter Chile, hunting for volcanoes, salars and thermal baths through the Vicuñas and Isluga national parks .

Two weeks of riding in little-visited corners of Bolivia and Chile covered a wide spectrum of physical discomforts and absolute pleasures. Scraped, chafed, burned, steamed, scratched, sore, parched, blistered, windswept – and yet at the same time mud-bathed, elated, relaxed and awed; we enjoyed every minute of cycling in this remote and epic landscape.


Sarah and James with Mabel, Pablo and Yolanda at the casa de ciclistas in La Paz, Bolivia

The ‘overflow’ Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz is at Mabel’s house; Mabel, stepmother to indefatigable casa host Cristian, also hosts cyclists in her very comfortable basement. We are received as family and really hope to see Mabel, Pablo and Yolita again.

Max, Kanaan and Andy in the kitchen at Mabel's house, La Paz, Bolivia

Before leaving, we are lucky to spend time with some very hairy Alaskans. Max, Kanaan and Andy of “A Trip South” introduce us to Russian dumplings, excessive egg eating and the finer points of taming facial hair that is over a year old.

Rock formations on the road out of La Paz, Bolivia

After the frantic road out of La Paz, we welcome the solitude that the desert brings on the second day.

Anna wild camping outside of La Paz, Bolivia

Wild camping with Anna, we begin cooking together. Travelling with other cyclists obviously requires a certain amount of adapting to each others’ ways. We soon find though that on the most important topic (food) Anna’s appetite and hunger for good camp food matches ours and a beautiful new cooking team is born.

Poster of Pedro Fernandez in a shop-restaurant in Curahuara, La Paz

Just one of an eclectic mix of tasteful posters we get to peruse while having lunch in a shop in Curahuara.

Sarah and Anna drinking cups of tea by the roadside near Sajama, Bolivia

An icy downpour forces us off the road and into a disused shelter. The stove comes out and in a flash we are huddled over cups of tea until the weather clears…

Sarah and the two tents, wild camping near Sajama, Bolivia

…and a few kms later, we are settling into another idyllic camp site…

View of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…with beautiful views of Volcan Sajama – Bolivia’s highest peak at 6542m.

Anna and Sarah cycling through the dust near Sajama, Bolivia

A day’s very dusty and windy riding…

View of Volcan Sajama from the town square in Sajama village, Bolivia

…blows us into the sleepy village of Sajama, in the shadow of the mighty volcano.

Sarah eating breakfast with Volcan Sajama in the background, Sajama, Bolivia

From our humble lodgings we have a majestic view to enjoy with our breakfast…

Sarah washing clothes in front of Volcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

…and it follows us around all day – even scrubbing clothes becomes enjoyable with this backdrop.

Anna having her photo taken by a little girl from Sajama, Bolivia

No photos please! Anna gets ‘papped’ with her own camera in the hands of Maria Luz, one of the residents of Sajama with a keen eye for photography.

Sarah knocking on the door of a closed shop in Sajama, Bolivia

There’s not much going on in Sajama, and the handful of village shops are rarely open. We patiently knock, and wait, and hope…

James and Anna cooking dinner in the hotel room in Sajama, Bolivia

…supplies are short and we have to improvise but there’s still sufficient food to throw three cyclists into a cooking frenzy back in our hotel room…

Breakfast plate of eggs, bread and chorizo in Sajama, Bolivia

…which provides a sumptuous chorizo dinner and leftovers for a decadent breakfast.

Anna and Sarah cycle out of Sajama, Bolivia

Leaving Sajama behind, we ride towards two more epic peaks…

View of James' bike in front of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…pausing to look back at their imposing neighbour…

Anna and Sarah outside a tiny stone chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…and stopping to explore clusters of houses with their own tiny stone chapels…

Yellow and orange banners inside a chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…tattered and a bit worn inside, but definitely still used and loved.

Sarah cycling alongside a queue of trucks waiting to get across the border from Bolivia to Chuile at Tambo Quemado

We jump the queue in front of the many trucks also waiting to cross the border at Tambo Quemado…

Chilean flag in the desert near the Bolivian/Chilean border

…and then we are into Chile for a few days of detouring in the desert.

James eating an egg sandwich near Guallatiri, Chile

We are forbidden from carrying fruit, vegetables, dairy or meat into Chile and not expecting to encounter shops or restaurants on the Chilean side, we have prepared reluctantly for a five day stint of dried foods and basic meals. We strike gold however on the first morning – a roadside café offering delicious fried egg sandwiches…

A vicuña skeleton on the road near Guallatiri, Chile

…but clearly not everyone is as lucky with their access to food out here.

Sarah being covered in dust by a passing lorry, near Guallatiri, Chile

We share the road with a procession of trucks on their way to Arica on the Chilean coast. Despite being very courteous, the lorry drivers can’t avoid covering us in layer after layer of dust.

Anna and Sarah riding along a dirt road near Guallatiri, Chile

Most of the time though, we have the road to ourselves…

Sarah looking out onto a valley near Guallatiri, Chile

…and can take time to watch the landscape open up in front of us.

Bike flags blowing in the afternoon wind near Guallatiri, Chile

Afternoon winds are brutal…

Sarah pushing her bike through sand near Guallatiri

…and finding ourselves on a wide empty plateau in the early evening, we have to push 3km through sand and wind to find some shelter for camping.

Sarah and Anna sheltering in a corral out of the wind near Guallatiri, Chile

We find ready-made shelter in a corral which is perfect for cooking our dinner out of the wind.

Vicuña and flamingos on the Salar de Surire, Chile.

After a silent night of tranquil camping, we are just a short hop away from the edge of Chile’s Salar de Surire. A wide, bright, sparkling, deserted expanse of salt and a haven for vicuña and flamingos.

Sarah standing on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Tentative steps out onto the salar thankfully reveal that it’s spongy but not a complete bog.

A spongy green plant on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Flashes of green from quirky local plant life…

of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…contrast with the dazzling white salt and turquoise thermal pools. We arrive at the thermal waters at Polloquere…

James covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and jump in. James quickly returns to his “creature from the deep” incarnation, last seen on Lake Tititaca…

Sarah covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and I scoop up the silky mud for a face pack. In the cold afternoon winds, the warm waters at around 45°C are bliss…

Sarah snuggled in her down jacket on the Salar de Surire, Chile

… but it’s a very different story out of the water. Getting straight into warm clothes is a race as the temperatures plummet. We layer up to keep warm…

Sun setting over Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…as the sun goes down.

The thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Waking to towers of rising steam and with no wind, the waters are hotter than the night before…

James and Anna sitting on an island at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…nothing for it but to get back in…

Anna and Sarah apply mud all over their bodies at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and enjoy an all over body pack…

James, Sarah and Anna covered in mud with their backs to the camera at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…thankfully, there’s enough mud to cover everyone!

Roadsign near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Dragging ourselves away from a luxurious morning of mud wallowing, we begin our journey back towards the Bolivian border. With barely anything marked on our map and only having seen a handful of lorry drivers for days, we are surprised to find so many place names marked on this road sign…

Three bikes laid in the road near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…but there’s definitely no one around…

Anna and Sarah riding away from the Salar de Surire, Chile

…as we climb away from the salar…

James cycling across the pass between the Salar de Surire and Colchane, Chile

…and onto a lunar landscape.

Blue church door in Isluga, Chile

Signs of life return as we descend towards Bolivia and reach another pretty church in Isluga…

Detail of flowers and lock on blue church door in Isluga, Chile

…with delicate details.

Lorries queued up outside customs in Pisigia, Bolivia

Crossing back into Bolivia is quick and easy and soon we are back amongst the truckers as the sun sets over the border town of Pisiga.

Llamas looking through the door into our camp area in Pisiga, Bolivia

Keen to camp, we accept an invitation from friendly Miguel (who owns the local grocery shop in town) to camp with his baby llamas. They insist on overseeing every aspect of our routine, and welcome us appropriately back to Bolivia.

Anna also blogged about this section of our trip and you can read it here.

Route notes:


Route: La Paz – Patacamaya – Sajama – Tambo Quemado
- Reached Sajama via unpaved back road which loops to north of Volcán Sajama via Ojsani and Tomarapi – recommended. Turn off level with telecom towers on hill, towards rock forest.
- Last shopping opportunity in Tambo Quemado on Bolivian side – we didn’t see a shop again until we crossed back into Bolivia at Pisiga, 5 days later.
- No fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy products into Chile – they scan your bags to check. Peanut butter OK, honey and jam not!


Route: Guallatire – Chilcaya – Enquelga – Isluga – Colchane
- From customs and immigration, back track a few hundred metres and take the turn on the bend signed to Guallatire – an unpaved, sandy road which climbs to a pass. 10km from customs to Chirigualla hot springs – we slept cosily inside the hut.
- Polloquere hot springs – approx 32km from Chilcaya. Follow dirt road around the east side of the Salar de Surire. At junction in corner of salar, keep right (left turn, uphill, goes back to Bolivia) – springs are on right after a couple of km.
- After springs, continue on this road to a well-signed junction – turn left towards Colchane.
- Food: roadside comedor 10km before Guallatire – also sells biscuits. Other than that, we saw no shops in Chile.
- Water: never carried more than a day’s supply – available from Customs post at border, carabinieri (police) at Guallatire and Chilcaya, and some freshwater springs on the pampa after the Cerro Capitán pass.

See our map for a route overview.


13 Responses to “A Chilean interlude”

  1. skip Says:

    Another sublime post, the mud baths look especially comforting. Could almost smell the chorizo dinner, yummy!
    All our best to both of you, Skip and Nancy


  2. Emma Mehmed Says:

    Mmmmm, that chorizo dinner looked delicious; I especially liked the sound of leftovers for breakfast! I’m probably consuming a similar number if calories as you at the moment, between my usual ferocious appetite and breastfeeding! Will e-mail you ASAP.

    Love you lots,


  3. Carol Moncrieff Says:

    Wow, another amazing chapter in your travels. It’s a perfect pictorial blog that you will remember forever. It’s amazing. I think the baby llamas pic is in my top 5 favourite images so far.

    Carol xxx


  4. Caliche Says:

    Recordando ando…pedaleando quiero estar ! Un abarzo y que los caminos de Chile sean amigos !


  5. Cass Says:

    Lovely stuff! It’s certainly making me looking forward to hitting Bolivia at last. If I could just escape Peru…
    All the best for on onward miles.


  6. Louise Winspear Says:

    Love the pic of the baby llamas at the end peeping round the door! Awe inspiring landscapes again. Those thermal spas look like a really welcome relief to the dusty roads.
    Your blog brings back so many lovely memories for me of my time in South Am years ago. One of my highlights was the Salar de Atacama.
    Can’t believe you’re still cycling. Love your blog. Happy adventures and all the best from Leeds xx


  7. Gayle and Mark Says:

    Loving the lunar scenery and the mud baths look awesome! Gritty stuff though, what with all that dust and wind, you guys are so tough now, i reckon Iron Man/woman beckons for when you get back ha ha ha! Lots of love from the Whartons xxx


  8. Jorge Iván Ballesteros Toro Says:

    S&J, abrazos de felicidad y alegría. We miss you. Los extrañamos y les prendemos velitas por su buen viaje y por la enseñanza que nos brindaron.




  9. Casey Peetz Says:

    Looks fantastic! Glad you are still doing well. Thinking of you and sending good vibes your way :)

    xx, Casey


    admin Reply:

    Thanks Casey! Great to hear from you – are you well? Missing Rhiannon days? S&J xxx


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